When should you go?
If you or loved one are ill or suffer an injury, who should you go see? Your primary care doctor, an urgent care clinic, or the emergency department (ED)? This can be a challenging decision to make. If you have ever been to an ED, then you can imagine what your visit will entail. It can be hours of waiting to find out that you could have received the same treatment from your doctor or an urgent care facility. So, what’s the best way to determine where you need to go to receive appropriate care as quickly as possible?
Emergency departments cannot refuse care to anyone, so once you check in and have your vital signs taken, the chart gets flagged by chief or primary complaint and you’re assigned a priority number. This is done on a scale of 1-5 meaning the lower the number, the higher the priority. What this means is if you have a lower priority number, you need medical attention more quickly in order to provide potential life saving measures. This is why people who might come in after you, are taken back before you. So, it’s actually a good thing if you’re not rushed back to the treatment area. The inability to refuse care means that everyone who walks in the door receives a medical screening exam completed by a person with significant medical training, such as physician assistant (PA), nurse practioner (NP), or doctor. This medical screening is to assess for any potential life threatening symptoms at that moment in time (please note that conditions can change and if at a later point you feel that something is wrong, always get reexamined). If your illness/injury is deemed something that is non-emergent, then a co-pay is usually asked for before treatment is provided. This is just the same as if you went to your primary care doctor (PMD) or urgent care facility, except the copay is usually significantly more expensive for an ED visit. The reason that this is done is to help encourage people to use the resources available to them and reduce ED overcrowding.
Now that we have a better understanding of how emergency departments work, what symptoms should you be looking out for that require you or your loved ones to go there? Obviously, anything that is life threatening to the point where someone could die, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911. Anything that could result in a permanent disability should also be treated as soon as possible. For anything that does not fall into the above two categories, then PMD or urgent care facility will most likely be the best option. For a complete list of what symptoms should be treated where, please see Fast Facts box 1. Remember, if you are unsure of where to go you can always call your PMD and seek advice from them. This brings up a key point of having certain phone numbers programed into your phone or listed in an easy to locate spot. By doing this, it will make it easier for you to have access to healthcare information when you need it the most. For a list of phone numbers that you should have readily accessible, please see Fast Facts box 2. Your health is very important and when it’s compromised, it’s understandable that you want the correct treatment as quickly as possible in order to return you to feeling well. The best way to do this is by knowing what is available to you at your PMD, an urgent care facility, or ED for the symptoms that you are currently experiencing. It is essential to note that if for any reason you are unsure of where you should be seen and feel that you are having a life-threatening event, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.